Five stays into the 2015 Slave Dwelling Project season and I had not yet added a new extant structure to the portfolio. I did spend a night at an archaeological dig site at Hampton Plantation in Charleston County, South Carolina but I slept in a tent because there was no structure there.
That would change March 27 – 29 on St Simons Island, GA. The Cassina Garden Club are the proud stewards of two slave cabins on St. Simons Island. In my experience, owners of these extant dwellings vary from private, nonprofit, and (local, county, state and federal governments). A garden club with the desire to restore extant slave dwellings was a surprise to me. My perception of garden clubs were retired and kept White women interested in plants. Yes, I did find some of that in the Cassina Garden Club but I found more. Their ultimate quest is to raise the $400,000 necessary to restore the cabins as historically accurate as possible. My presence was to assist with the fundraising. To that end, a series of events were planned that included a formal dinner, island tours and an opportunity for participants to pay to spend a night with me in the slave cabins.
While the fundraising is ongoing, the two St. Simons tabby slave cabins, which are the only ones of the slave cabins of Hamilton Plantation still standing, are currently undergoing renovations to restore the structures after more than a century of weather and wear. To my surprise, the plantation grew cotton and not rice. Unfortunately, previous preservation work by the garden club completed decades ago included sealing the tabby with Portland cement, which had the unintended consequence of trapping moisture and disintegrating the tabby underneath.
The three days of events was titled Cabin Fever Weekend. Upon my arrival at the cabins, I was given a tour by Dottie Fielder, Janice Lamittina and other members of the Cassina Garden Club. It was obvious that the women had done their homework and the meticulous work that was being done to restore the tabby cabins was well researched. One of the two cabins, of which the current restoration is currently concentrated, still has its original chimney in the middle which was an indication that it was built to accommodate two families. The doors of both cabins were originally oriented to the creek and the ongoing restoration has already made that correction on the cabin with the chimney by putting the windows back where they were originally. An addition to this cabin was added sometime after emancipation and is currently being used as a bathroom and kitchen. In addition to the restoration work being done to this cabin, the floors will be removed so that archaeological work can be conducted after which, the floors will be replaced.
The chimney has been removed from the second cabin and it is used as meeting space by the Cassina Garden Club. It is also adorned with exhibits that interpret the history of the cabins and slavery as it existed on St. Simons island.
The Cassina Garden Club really followed through when I requested that they maximize my time with them. After the tour of the slave cabins, we proceeded to St. Simons Elementary School, Glynn Middle School and Risley Middle School respectively. All three schools were the recipients of a power point presentation on the Slave Dwelling Project.
The evening continued with a $100.00 per person cocktail reception and a three course catered dinner which was held at the A.W. Jones Heritage Center. The event was sold out and included a silent auction. This group was also the recipient of a power point lecture on the Slave Dwelling Project. My attempt to convince some of them to spend the night with me in the slave cabin seemed to have fallen on deaf ears.
The first night in the cabin, I was joined by Prinny Anderson who travelled from Durham, North Carolina for the occasion. The possibility for others to join me at no charge existed, but no one accepted the invitation. A journalist who writes for the Atlanta Journal Constitution made arrangements to join me but she was a no show. It is always my hope that when stewards of these properties give me the opportunity to invite others to spend a night in these dwellings, that people take advantage of these opportunities. This was certainly an opportunity lost to follow the trend of using these powerful sites as classrooms.
The next day included two tours of African American sites on St. Simons Island which was given by Amy Roberts, a local African American tour guide and island resident. This tour continued the opportunity for the Cassina Garden Cub to raise funds. The highlight of the tour was visiting Igbo Landing on Dunbar Creek, where it is believed that in 1803 rather than be enslaved, Africans walked into the creek and drowned themselves. The birthplace of the famous running back Jim Brown is also located on St. Simons Island. What stood out the most was the few African American communities that are left on the island and are juxtaposed to gated communities which to me was an indication that they may not be around too much longer.
Another fundraising opportunity was a Lowcountry dinner which was catered by Chef and Farmer Matthew Raiford and College of Coastal Georgia culinary students. This event which was held at the cabins included a live band and the opportunity to tour the cabins. The menu for the dinner was taken from a cookbook that was published by the Cassina Garden Club in 1937. The participants were treated by a presentation by Chef Raiford and a presentation about the Slave Dwelling Project by me.
The second night in the cabin was open to others to join us (me and Prinny) for a fee. Unfortunately, despite my and Cassina Garden Club members repeated attempts to recruit local people for the sleepover, no one took the challenge. The night was unseasonably cold so it was necessary to use a space heater for the sleepover.
The time with the Cassina Garden Club was concluded with a riverside daybreak service on Sunday morning.
The Cassina Garden Club is already making plans for the Slave Dwelling Project to visit St. Simons Island in 2016 and stay in other extant slave cabins there. Between now and the next sleepover on St. Simons Island, it is my hope that we can get more people excited about spending a night in the cabins. It is also my hope that more African Americans can become interested and participate in what the Cassina Garden Club is doing in their effort to restore and interpret these extant slave dwellings.
Exploring the History & Community of Slave Dwellings on St Simons Island, Georgia
by Prinny Anderson
The Cassina Garden Club of St Simons Island, GA, is the oldest garden club in Glynn County. Its mission includes the preservation of two tabby-built slave dwellings, remnants of the Hamilton Plantation. Due to the efforts of the Garden Club, the cabin site has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1988. http://www.cassinagardenclub.org/index.html
In March 2015, the Club held a weekend fundraiser – “Cabin Fever” – to continue its ongoing fundraising in support of the cabins, and the Slave Dwelling Project was invited to take part. There were dinners, African American History of St Simons Trolley Tours, cabin sleepovers, and a Sunday morning prayer service.
The two cabins owned by the Cassina Garden Club are the most visible remains of a village for enslaved workers, located on the Gascoigne Bluff on the southwest side of St Simons Island. The main house was located several miles away; the buildings on the bluff were associated with the marine supplies and ship repair facilities. Elsewhere on James Hamilton’s property Sea Island cotton was raised and timber was cut.
St Simons Island History – Context for the Cassina Slave Dwellings: The history of human habitation on St Simons Island goes back 4,000 years, at least, when the people who became known as the Timucua, Mocama and Guale lived there, raising garden crops and fishing and hunting in the ocean, the inland waterways and the marshes. French and Spanish explorers reached the Georgia coast in the early 1500’s. In 1736, Oglethorpe built the first European settlement on the islands as a point of defense against incursions by the Spanish who had colonized farther south. Settler troops convinced the Spanish to stay away permanently at the Battle of Bloody Marsh in 1742.
The earliest English colonial enterprises on the island were timbering, for the shipbuilding industry. Then large plantations were established to grow Sea Island cotton, and Africans were enslaved as agricultural laborers. In this era, the African / African American population far exceeded the European American numbers. One of the most infamous Georgia slaveholders of the antebellum era, Pierce Butler, was the owner of Hampton Point Plantation at the north end of the island.
During the Civil War, as was the case on other coastal islands, the plantation owners fled to their inland properties, abandoning their enslaved people to a de facto emancipation. Many of the slaveholders never returned to live on their ruined plantations. Being left to their own devices strengthened the unique Gullah culture of St Simons, but inflicted hardship – with no currency and no contact with the mainland, island inhabitants relied on subsistence farming, fishing and hunting, but eked out an impoverished life. After the war, the emancipated people tried share-cropping or working small pieces of land deeded to them by their former owners, but life continued to be very hard.
In 1874, Dodge Lumber opened a timber mill on Gascoigne Bluff, and the tabby slave dwellings became workers’ housing and mill offices. But by 1906, the lumber business declined as a result of over-harvesting.
Meanwhile, the resort industry was also getting started. In the 1870’s, Northern developers began construction of summer homes and resort hotels on St Simons. Once the causeway connected the island to the mainland, in the 1930’s, an enterprising industrialist bought huge parcels of property with a view to developing luxury communities of vacation and year-round residences. The founders of the Cassina Garden Club would have come to St Simons around the time the first private golf club and the original private social club were opened to attract visitors and new residents.
Today, the island population is about 15,000, and between 3 – 4% of the inhabitants are African American. For several generations, African Americans have been migrating to the mainland and to the North to find work and a different social environment.
A Tour of Past African American Communities on the Island – More Context: As part of the “Cabin Fever” weekend, the Cassina Garden Club arranged for trolley tours of African American sites throughout the island. Miss Amy, a long-time resident and a doyenne of the African American community, was the tour narrator. One of the sites was Ibo Landing. At this spot, when an 1803 shipment of enslaved people, abducted from inland Nigeria, was brought to Dunbar Creek, the captives drowned themselves in the river rather than endure captivity and enslavement. http://themoonlitroad.com/ibo-landing/ The site is on private land, and there is no historic marker on the main road, so having Miss Amy’s guidance to the spot was essential.
During the tour, we went past a number of former plantation sites, including Retreat, previously owned by the William Page and Thomas Butler King families and now the location of the Sea Island Golf Club. With permission, visitors may see the ruins of the mansion and the family cemetery, but although up to 350 enslaved people worked this property, no remnants of their lives are preserved. This is a pattern encountered in many areas, and highlights the importance of the efforts of the Cassina Garden Club.
Throughout the island, we saw neighborhood layouts that spoke volumes about enterprising real estate developers and the emigration of the descendants of the formerly enslaved African Americans. At several spots, Miss Amy pointed out African American neighborhoods. Modest one-story houses sat side by side or out in front of large, two-story ones. In other places, we passed gated communities of big houses on large, manicured lots, gated communities sometimes named after former plantations and former plantation owners.
The Harrington School was built in the 1920’s and educated African American children in grades 1 – 7 during the years of school segregation. Census records show many Harrington Community children as being “in school” rather than “in work,” and their parents were known to be literate. To give their children higher education at that time, African American families would have had to send them to board on the mainland, no doubt limiting the numbers who could go to high school because of the cost and the family separation. From the ‘20’s to the late ‘60’s, the School was also a center for community activities. In spite of pressure to sell land to developers, in the 1990’s, Ms. Isadora Hunter donated her land to St Simons Land Trust, to provide 12 acres to which the schoolhouse could be moved and where it is now being preserved.
First African Baptist Church was a highlight of the tour. It was built in 1869, four years after the enslaved community was officially emancipated, and has been in continuous use since that time. The “Explore St Simons Island” website sadly comments that although the church is as old as other historic sites on the island, it is not listed in many tourism books and brochures.
We had a look at the waterside baptismal area, now a public boat ramp and minus any kind of marker to tell of its earlier use. Miss Amy told us about the Pool of Oblivion, where African Americans went to meditate and feel released from cares and troubles. The Pool is now in a residential community, also without any historic marker.
Interspersed among the housing settlements, the churches and the school were shopping and entertainment areas. Miss Amy pointed out one corner that must have been a hub of activity, with shops, a gas station and a restaurant, all used by the African American community. Nothing is left of that hub now, just empty land. At several points, we were barely able to see, back in the woods, the remains of wooden structures that had been bars, restaurants and nightclubs. At another stop on the drive, Miss Amy described the men’s social and recreational area, where most youngsters learned to swim. What she painted for us was a picture of a dynamic, hard-working, educated and fun-loving African American community that has diminished in size and moved away from its earliest post-emancipation settlements.
More than any other Slave Dwelling Project overnight stay that I’ve been on, our hosts in the Cassina Garden Club made it possible to get to know the larger context for the slave dwellings they care for. The whole story is a mix of oppression, survival, faith, and adaptation. It is also a story that both honors and embraces the African American heritage and allows us to see gaps, omissions and oversights. I am grateful to the Garden Club for the caring and the principles, the work and the funding that they put into stewarding these St Simons Island slave dwellings, and encourage many other people to support their fundraising and go visit the “hidden history” spots of St Simons Island.